JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri General Assembly convened its 2013 session Wednesday with the largest contingent of Republican lawmakers since the Civil War era pledging to cut taxes for residents and revamp the state's business incentives to boost the economy.
The 97th General Assembly, which runs until May 17, kicked off with bold promises from GOP leaders to get past the internal gridlock of the past couple of years and enact an agenda focused on economic growth and education.
About one-third of the members in both the House and Senate are freshmen — potentially raising the learning curve but also resulting in a fresh opportunity for some issues that have gotten bogged down in the past, such as an overhaul of state tax credit programs.
"There's reasons for great optimism that it's going to be a very productive year," Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, told reporters.
Republicans control 24 of the 34 Senate seats and 109 of the 163 House seats with two vacancies. Those supermajorities provide just enough votes for Republicans to override vetoes by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, if all the GOP lawmakers stick together.
"The people of the state sent the largest Republican caucus in the history of the Missouri House to Jefferson City to advance a bold and ambitious policy agenda — one that will mean more and better jobs for those in need of work," House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said in prepared remarks.
Nixon wants lawmakers to expand Medicaid coverage for lower-income adults, as envisioned by President Barack Obama's health care law. But Republican legislative leaders restated their reluctance to do so Wednesday, citing fears about the potential long-term costs.
The Republican agenda includes business-friendly changes to the state's legal system and workers' compensation process for injured employees; a bonding proposal for public colleges, universities and state buildings; restrictions on union powers; and a wide-ranging education platform that Jones said could reward teachers for good performance and "hold poor teachers accountable."
Dempsey said lawmakers would consider "a performance-based, comprehensive funding formula" for higher education institutions.
While pledging to work together, Dempsey and Jones put forth two different monikers for their agenda. Jones called his platform the "Triple E Agenda" — focused on "Economic Development, Energy Policy and Education." Dempsey dubbed his plan "BIG solutions" — an acronym for "Build our infrastructure," ''Invest in education" and "Grow our economy."
The economic agenda envisioned by Republican leaders includes an overhaul of the state's dozens of tax credit programs, similar to what lawmakers failed to pass in a 2011 special session. The plan calls for tax credits to be pared back for the renovation of historic buildings and the development of low-income housing, so that new incentives can be authorized for favored industries, such as computer data processing centers.
"After four years of hard work and with little to show for it, it's time to pass a far-reaching economic development bill this year," Dempsey said in an opening day speech.
Republicans also are considering a variety of proposed income tax cuts targeted to either individuals or businesses in an attempt to counter sweeping tax cuts enacted last year by neighboring Kansas. Some lawmakers also want Missouri to team up with other states in a compact that could allow it to collect taxes from online sales — potentially offsetting some of the lost revenues from an income tax reduction.
Minority party Democrats said they shared in the desire to create jobs and revise tax policy but not necessarily by the means advocated by Republicans. Some are wary of trying to emulate Kansas, which now is trying to close a self-induced budget gap.
"Kansas has been incredibly reckless, not only in their incentives that they've offered but also in their tax cuts, and the cost to attract new business to their state is going to end up being incredibly damaging," said Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City.
Democrats also emphasized their desire to expand the Medicaid program as called for by Nixon, noting the potential economic impact of billions of federal dollars flowing into the health care system.
"We simply cannot let political dogma stand in the way of creating jobs and improving health care access," said House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis.